Senate Resolution 4

Well, Jim, you are exactly right about Obama. That is why I haven’t been all that gung ho about scouring the earth with you in search of moderate conservatives. We already have one in the White House. As Obama said himself a few weeks ago in an interview with Telemundo, if he was a politician in the 1980s, he would be considered a moderate Republican. I still consider him one, so never really felt the need to search for more.

I think the larger issue that we’ve been wrestling with for a long time, an issue that is manifest in the lack of a center, in the lack of moderates, is our dysfunctional government. I think we both agree that if there was more moderation it would function better. Mind you, we may mean something different by moderation. I mean following better the will of the people, while you sometimes seem to mean a middle path between the extremes of the two parties in Washington. And those are not the same thing.

(Just one example; we often hear that Democrats don’t want any changes to Social Security, while Republicans want to “reform” it, to raise the age limit, slow the growth in benefits, etc. But that is only the Republicans in Washington. If you look at polls of the American people, vast majorities of both Democrats and Republicans like Social Security and don’t want to see it weakened or the age requirement increased. So for me, moderation on this subject is not a compromise between House Dems and Republicans to raise the age one year instead of two, but rather to follow the American people’s wishes–for after all, at least ostensibly those in government are still supposed to represent the American people–and to strengthen, rather than weaken Social Security. You like to call if “reform” and say that is a good word and that social security can be reformed. Okay, fine, but look at the details of what each party means by “reform” and you’ll see the Republicans in congress want to cut benefits and increase the age requirement. That is what they mean by reform. If you believe otherwise, find me the details of a Republican proposal that doesn’t cut benefits or increase the age requirement.)

In the interest of seeing a more functional government, and one that is designed to push for more moderation, however you want to define it, we will know on Tuesday if there is any chance of that happening. Tuesday is when the senate will decide whether or not to institute new filibuster rules. If they do, it will significantly change the senate, and return it to the functionality it had before 1975, when they changed the filibuster rules to their current democracy-subverting condition. If they don’t adopt new rules on Tuesday, or if they adopt some meaningless rules, like those suggested by McCain, and call it real change, it won’t be real change, and you may as well pay no attention to politics for the next two years, cause nothing will happen and it will just frustrate you. (Arcane senate rules say any rule changes must be adopted at the start of a session, so if it doesn’t happen Tuesday, it can’t happen for two more years, until the next congress is sworn in.)

By adopting Senate Resolution 4, proposed by Senators Merkley of Oregon and Harkin of Iowa, we will see debate return to the U.S. senate. Actual debate. A lone senator will no longer be able to keep the senate from functioning, from debating a bill, from voting on a bill, from voting on judicial nominees, from functioning as a democratic body simply by making a phone call and saying “I object.” That actually is how it works now. Worse, they don’t even have to identify themselves. Which is why we don’t know which senators have been responsible for the 600 filibusters Senate leader Reid has had to deal with (when LBJ was Senate leader, in the same period of time, under the old rules, he faced one filibuster. Yes, one back then. 600 today. And we wonder why nothing gets done in Washington?)

The new rules proposed in senate resolution 4 would restore the talking filibuster. Senators could no longer anonymously and indefinitely stop debate and voting in the senate. Unlike many bills that run hundreds or thousands of pages, the proposed resolution is just six pages long. Go read it.

When I first heard of the proposal, I thought, what is the use; the House is still under Republican rule. That is true, and it may prevent much from happening in the next couple years. What it would do is restore debate. Make senators say why they oppose allowing votes on things that polls show the American people overwhelmingly support. It would make them explain why they thought it was better to have hundreds of judicial vacancies rather than allowing votes on the nominees. It would put them on record with their positions. It would make them debate. It would remove the anonymity of hijacking our government. Sure, the rules will be there when the Republicans at some point control the senate again. Great. Both sides need to be responsible for making their case, for debating on the floor of the senate. If they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be in the senate.

If the resolution is adopted, I believe it will in a great way return democracy to the voters and take it out of the hands of the special interests on both sides (the special interests that finance senate campaigns and then have the elected senators do their bidding anonymously, as is the case now). And that will be a return to moderation, for the American people as a whole are far more moderate than the special interests that currently run our politics. It won’t be a magic change overnight, and it would be a giant step in the right direction.

And it is all up to Senate Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. For right now there are 51 Democratic senators–thanks to many of the newly elected ones like Elizabeth Warren–who have committed to voting for the resolution. If they are given a chance. We will know Tuesday if Harry Reid allows a vote on this or instead if he only allows a vote on a watered down symbolic version supported by Senator McCain, which would actually change nothing. Reid has the choice of business as usual (and in the past, when he was in the minority, he praised the current rules, so it would take courage for him to go for historic change now), or of being remembered as a truly significant senate leader and champion of democracy.

Moderation, however you define it, would seem to have to include being able to follow the sensible will of the majority. Right now a minority of one can essentially halt all business in the senate (barring 61 votes to counter that one). That is not how democracy works.

What will Reid do? I can’t say I have high hopes, though I will be paying attention with curiosity to the senate on Tuesday. Either for the last time for at least two years, or with renewed interest going forward.

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About JP

We're two guys who met in college, in 1980. We've stayed in touch, and like to talk politics, current events, music and religion. JP is nore liberal than Sid, but not in every way. We figure that dialogue stimulates ideas, moderates perspective, and is in general friendly. These are things we need badly in these dangerous times. The blog name is taken from a song by Bruce Cockburn.
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